“Write about what you know”, well-meaning gurus and writing manuals tell you. Or “follow your passion”. I’m not so sure about that.
When “write what you know” means something like “if you really, really dig thrillers and thrillers are all you ever read, then please don’t try to write a chicklit novel”, then fine. I agree. But writing about what you know, also includes some nasty traps.
Just to be clear: what I’m about to explain, focuses on writing fiction for a broad audience. If you’re writing a paper about the effect of the Inquisition on the firewood industry for an audience of academic historians, then please feel free to move on.
But if you are writing for a broad audience, I say approach your passions with caution. Please allow me illustrate my point with an example. Right now I’m reading a thriller. The author clearly likes to travel. In fact, “she likes it” might be the understatement of the century. I haven’t reached page 100 yet, and so far the book has brought me to London, Scotland, Australia, South-Africa, Botswana, Belgium and some islands I don’t know. The problem with this particular book is, all these places feel the same to me, the reader. Because the author fails to transfer her passion to her readers.
If you have ever been to, say, the Mekong delta, the name alone will evoke all the sights, sounds, smells… all the emotions you’ve experienced there, in your mind. The problem is, I’m out here. What you cannot ever forget if you want to be a (good) writer, is that your reader may not have been to that place that impressed you so much. In that case the name Mekong delta is merely a empty word. So your words must make all those sights, sounds and smells come alive in his or her mind. Starting from scratch.
The same goes for everything you might feel passionate about. You like ballet, great! Your reader might very well be open to the grace of it, but maybe he knows close to nothing about it. You’re very angry about the restructuration your government has in mind for the educational system? Sure! But remember that your reader may not have a clue what you’re talking about. Or worse, he may not give a damn.
When writing about your passion, you must always assume that a reader does not share it. So it’s your job to kindle that same fire in your reader’s heart. When you hardly remember how it felt to live without your passion, then I wish you good luck with that. You’ll need it.
Another aspect is knowledge. If you’re passionate about something – the Mekong delta, New York, dancing, education, eighteenth century clock work, whatever – chances are you know a thing or two about it. When sharing that knowledge through your writing, you’ll have to guess how much your reader already knows about it. Which words of the jargon he knows. On the one hand, you have to avoid boring him by telling something he already knows, or by losing yourself in endless ramblings about that thing you love so much. On the other hand, if you share too little, your story will lack flavor, and you will lose his attention just as fast.
My third argument concerns the protagonist. If he or she is… well, you, then your chances of success shrink drastically. The most interesting protagonists stand out. In their goodness or evilness, in their abilities or in their flaws, but they are seldom average. Chances are you’re too complex, nuanced and too average (no offence) to make for an interesting protagonist.
In my honest opinion, good writing is not about being truthful, it’s about being effective. It’s about having the desired effect on the reader.
I’m not saying writing about your passion cannot be done. I’m certainly not saying it’s not fun. I’m just saying it’s difficult to find a good balance when doing so, especially for a writer with little experience.